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The Library-Catalog Wars: ‘Chronicle of Higher Education’ Readers Weigh In

Posted by Editor on October 1, 2009

Catalogs are the problem!

Librarians are the problem!

Students are the problem!

A new Chronicle article on trends in library catalog software has touched off an online reader debate about who’s to blame for patrons’ search frustrations and how to fix the situation. The article discussed how libraries are trying to out-Google Google with easy-to-use, online catalog-search software, while “pockets of resistance” in library circles feel the new products dumb down the research process.

That resistance was on display in reader gripes like this:

“Unfortunately, instead of teaching students how to conduct a precise search with few relevant results, faculty and librarians have found an easy way out — googlize everything.”

Argued another:

“Today it seems that just because our students come in knowing how to perform a Google search that that is all they need. Library databases are ‘tools.’ Knowing how to use a tool properly must be taught.”

But other readers rose in defense of users. Sort of:

“Much as I am also irritated by users who don’t know a keyword from a hole in the ground, the tendency to blame the user for not knowing how to use a catalog is exactly the kind of thinking that got us into this mess to start with. Yes, users are idiots. But good systems are designed for idiots and help idiots be successful despite their idiocy. That’s why Google is so popular, and why catalogs are not. Any tool that requires ‘instruction’ to use is doomed.”

Others pointed to the logistical problems of teaching better catalog use:

“Commenters who claim that students need to be taught the correct way to use existing catalogs need to come up with a comprehensive way to teach every student at a university this information. Librarians don’t often have access to a wide swath of students for instructional purposes; at many institutions, they are dependent on teaching faculty and instructors to want to integrate library instruction. More user-friendly catalogs seem much more realistic at this point.”

And here’s a blame-the-librarians take:

“Fact of the matter is students don’t know how to use the catalog, library instruction is limited and frankly usually offered by people who are terrified of Google and Web 2.0. You don’t need to revamp the library catalog and interface, you need to revamp the librarians and how they are taught.”

Susan L. Gibbons, vice provost and dean of the River Campus Libraries at the University of Rochester, summed up the discussion in an e-mail to The Chronicle:

“The commentary shows the all-too-common divide within libraries about information literacy. Some pine for the good old days when students had no choice but to come to the physical library and be forced to learn the idiosyncrasies of mastering a research tool, such as journal indices and the power of Library of Congress subject headings.  Personally, I think libraries have gone from being in a monopolistic to a competitive marketplace for information; and that marketplace shift requires different thinking about services. I am of the opinion that libraries should do everything they can to lower the barrier of entry. Nothing should stand in the way of a student entering some search terms and discovering good resources. Once the student has entered into the (virtually or physically) library, then the rich complexities can be revealed.”…Read the entire post and comments here:


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